Skip to content

Want Sustainable Seafood? 2021 Will Be The Year We Get Tinned

Tinned Mackerel, tuna and live fish
Graphic by mbg creative x Ina Peters x Sebastian Pena x JEFF WASSERMAN / Stocksy + Unsplash
December 10, 2020

It turns out the secret to eating more sustainably may have been hiding in the canned food aisle all along. This may be due in part to the pantry-stocking shopping we did back in March, where we stacked cans of, well, anything on our shelves. Whatever the case, we predict 2021 will be the year people will wise up to the briny delights of smaller, tinned fish and seafood like mackerel, clams, mussels, sardines, and anchovies, which is good news for the ocean ecosystem. Chowing down on smaller fish can relieve pressure on larger and more threatened species. Even better, they're a major culinary upgrade from the sad cans of tuna fish of your youth. This is tinned food in the southern European tradition, made by artisan producers with top-quality seafood preserved at the peak freshness.

This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

The rise of tinned fish in food service.

If you don't believe us, just peruse the menu at Brooklyn wine bar Rhodora, a handsome wood-paneled space with a lofty no-food-waste goal. Spanish-inflected canned seafood, or conservas, are the big draw here, from petite, golden-hued cockles preserved in brine to hand-cut morsels of octopus packed with nuggets of garlic in zesty Portuguese olive oil.

"The food program is inspired by conservas tapas bars popular in Portugal and Barcelona," explained Rhodora co-owner Halley Chambers. Conservas were carefully chosen with sustainable fishing practices in mind, she continued, but tinned offerings aren't only for the benefit of the ocean. "It was also important to the team to build a sustainable and equitable staffing model and do away with the traditional hierarchy dividing BOH and FOH," she said.

For that reason, Rhodora nixed the notion of an executive chef or dedicated BOH team—something possible because any staff member can open a tin. "Tinned food [also] has the benefit of being single-serving, minimizing the waste created by leftover food," she said.

Why we're getting behind this sustainable (and healthy) trend.

The tinned fish craze could be good news for your health, too. Too-high levels of mercury can have a devastating effect on brain function and memory, not to mention they can majorly throw your thyroid, kidney, and energy levels out of whack. A potential solution? Swap out high-mercury fish like tuna and swordfish for the types of seafood that generally come in a can. There's even a nifty acronym to help you remember which fish are best: SMASH, which stands for sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring.

"I think that the fish consumption in a perfect world would be our main source of protein," mbg Collective member and functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, M.D., told us. If you're looking for brands, "I love Vital Choice, which is a really great operation where they go to Alaska and they get the smaller fish. They're not full of toxins, they're more nutrient-dense, and you see the color of these fish. They're bright orange, dark, dark orange. And that comes from all the algae and the plankton they're eating."

This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

The basics of shopping for tinned fish.

Beyond Hyman's favorite brand, there are some guidelines for shopping for tinned fish you should keep in mind. For tuna (likely the form of this product that's more familiar to people), registered dietitian Erica Fand, M.S., R.D., says the question of water- or oil-packed comes down to preference.

"If you do choose tuna packed in oil," she told mindbodygreen, "try to opt for tuna canned in olive oil." She also recommends picking "low sodium" or "no-salt" products when possible.

But of course, canned tuna is still not the most sustainable option: It's those smaller species that have the benefit of being more sustainable. Because they're smaller, they tend to be more abundant—but you can get up-to-date information on which species are more (or less) at risk through groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

Another great sustainability buzzword to keep in mind is line-caught: "Catching fish using a line leads to less bycatch (fish that are caught accidentally and left to die) than net fishing does," explains Emma Loewe, mbg's senior sustainability editor. "Some canned fish brands championing line-catching include the aforementioned Patagonia Provisions, Wild PlanetBar Harbor, and Safe Catch."

Luckily, both of Fand's healthy suggestions work with smaller species too: When shopping, you should keep in mind that the best options will be packed in healthy oils. And again, you probably don't need added salt in the product—especially with those smaller fish, which naturally are quite salty on their own.

Using tinned fish in the kitchen.

Once you've picked out the optimal product from your local store's shelves and taken it home, it's time to get to know this ingredient. It's a prime opportunity to dive into Mediterranean cooking, where these types of proteins feature alongside healthy fats, whole grains, and fresh produce often. Cooking in this region is also notable, often, for its simplicity: toasts with small tinned fish and fresh herbs or a few atop a simple salad are quick and easy routes to lunch or dinner.

While anchovies might seem at home on a pizza or in a Caesar salad dressing, they're also at home when tossed into a tomato-y pasta dish or added on top of a seasonal frittata. Though it does have a fattier, possibly more rich flavor than tuna (especially if you're buying it packed in oil), mackerel is more mild than the other small species on Hyman's favorites list and can easily be swapped into your favorite bigger fish recipes (like fish cakes or even a sandwich).

Bottom line, whether it's because your pantry likes the convenience, the sustainability factor, or the smashing health benefits, we're predicting our love of tinned fish to reach new heights in 2021.

This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.